Humans are exceedingly inconsistent at self-regulation. We thoughtlessly say and do things we later regret. We intend to do the right thing (eat the salad), but end up doing the wrong thing (eat the ice cream). We promise to budget expenses, save for retirement, diet, exercise, and stop drinking or smoking, and yet we continue to do the opposite. We try to start new habits, but we lose resolve; we sabotage our intentions.
We dislike our bad habits, yet we keep doing them. They seem intractable and beyond our control. We feel perplexed by our own contradictions. So, we often ask “Why?”
“Why do I do this? Why can’t I just stop?”
I’ve heard these questions many times in my practice, especially from clients who come to me with an out-of-control behavioral, emotional, or cognitive habit. I wrote about it at length in my book, Why Do I Keep Doing This?!!
“Why do I do this? Why can’t I just stop?”
Maybe you’ve been asking yourself the same question. I have certain biases about that question. I’m going to explain those biases in this blog. Simply put, when it comes to the psychology behind human behavior, asking “why?” is not a good approach. Asking “how?” is better.
Let’s Compare “Why?” and “How?”
In Figuring Out People, NLP trainers L. Michael Hall and Bob Bodenhamer wrote that one’s “philosophical direction,” can be either mostly “Why” or mostly “How”. People with a “Why” orientation think about causation, source, and origins, while those with a “How” orientation think about use, function, direction, and destiny.
“Why” people look for an explanation in past events, based on the assumption: “If I can understand where something came from, I can then master it.” When someone asks why, it means they seek a reason or an explanation for a problem, rather than an understanding of the process that supports and creates the problem.
Those with a “Why” orientation may get stuck mentally reliving a traumatic event, because they keep looping back to it, asking “Why?” Variations on the “why” theme include: Why me? Why did I do that? Why did they do that to me? Why didn’t I do something else? Why did this happen?”
People with a “How” orientation, on the other hand, focus on solutions by asking “How can I respond to this? How can I use this?” “Why” favors philosophical approaches to problems, while “How” favors pragmatic approaches that seek solutions. A “Why” person asks, “Why do I do this?” A “How” person asks, “How can I solve this?”
Do this experiment. Identify a problematic behavior that you perform often. It might be overeating, or skipping a workout, or keeping yourself awake at night, or needlessly criticizing yourself. Whatever it is, ask yourself, “Why do I do this?” Sit quietly and notice where your thoughts go. Notice your feelings. Now change one word in the question. Ask, “How do I do this?” Notice now where your thoughts go and how you feel.
Are you surprised by the difference? Here’s my experience with these two versions of the question. I think about my sleeping an extra hour in the mornings when I would be better off to get up when my alarm goes off. I could really use that extra hour for productive activity, and yet, more often than not, I shut off the alarm and snuggle back in for an extra hour of Zs. When I ask myself, “Why do I do that?” I give myself reasons – I’m tired, I can get things done later, etc. Conversely, when I ask myself, “How do I do that?” I conclude that sometimes I stay in bed because of what I tell myself, and if I told myself something different, I might create a different result.
It’s not that “Why?” is a bad question. It’s just that the explanations for perplexing human behaviors are often multi-layered and subject to numerous theoretical interpretations. There is no one single, simple explanation or reason.
Asking “Why do I do this?” is often based on two faulty assumptions: 1) There is a single, isolated cause for problem behavior and 2) Once this cause is known, then the problem will be solved. In truth, human behavior cannot be boiled down to a single, isolated cause. Human behavior is more often due to a chain of interrelated events. Additionally, knowing the cause does not always solve the problem. Sometimes it’s necessary to learn new responses to circumvent the problem and arrive at new outcomes.
The Many Explanations for Unwanted Behaviors
When a client presents his or her problem to me, I always listen, empathize, verify my understanding, and then I ask the NLP outcome-based question: “What do you want as a solution?” As you can now surmise, the answer is often: “I have to know why I do this.”
Knowing why is not a solution. Thinking that “knowing why” is a solution is one factor keeping people stuck in behaviors they dislike. They theorize that knowing why will produce an explanation that will lead to an insight that spurs personal change. That’s how it works in the movies, isn’t it? It usually doesn’t work that way in real life. In fact, for some people, knowing why becomes a crutch – a reason to avoid implementing a solution. Insight comes more often after changing a behavior than before.
When my clients tell me they want to know why they do what they don’t want to do, I wonder which type of explanation they seeking. Human behavior can be attributed to numerous causes. Even professionals cannot agree on the causes of human behavior. Some think unwanted behavior is future-oriented – caused by a need to obtain a particular goal or result. Some look to antecedents: unwanted behavior is a response to what has gone before. It seems nearly everyone has a favorite theory of human behavior. That’s why I can’t tell anyone with any certainty why they do anything. I can only offer one of many possible theoretical explanations.
So, if you believe knowing why is essential to changing your unwanted habit, here is a sampling of 20 commonly accepted explanations for human behavior. Choose the ones that most appeal to you.
1. Your brain is malfunctioning. This is the neuroscience explanation. If this explanation makes sense to you, follow the work of Dr. Daniel Amen who wrote Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. His brain scan research shows that out-of-control behaviors are often caused by areas of the brain which are underactive or overactive due to injury, environmental chemicals, poor diet, etc. The solution lies in exercise, nutrition, supplements, cognitive therapy, adequate sleep, and possibly psychoactive drugs and/or neurofeedback.
2. Your problem is due to the normal functioning of a healthy brain. You have trained your brain to produce your habit. Your actions stimulate the brain’s pleasure centers that enrich memory and learned associations, to ensure that your unwanted behavior will recur. Repetition causes the brain to devote more neural activity and density to maintaining and streamlining the behavior. If you like this explanation, follow the work of neuroscientist David J. Linden who wrote The Compass of Pleasure.
3. You have a neurochemical imbalance that can be corrected by medication. This is the psychiatric explanation. See a psychiatrist and get a prescription for a psycho-active drug. BTW, studies show that behavioral change is more easily achieved through a combination of drugs and therapy, as opposed to drugs alone. Drugs threat the symptoms, but not the underlying thought patterns that often accompany habits.
4. Your problem is due to genetics. You inherited a physical predisposition to this type of problem. Nevertheless, you can learn adaptive behaviors that will help you to compensate for deficiencies in your DNA. Consult a behavioral-oriented psychologist, counselor, or life coach.
5. Your habit persists because you keep focusing on how to negotiate with it instead of replacing it with a solution. Perhaps you are like so many people who get stuck in a bad habit because they keep focusing on all the aspects of the problem without ever formulating a specific solution. In NLP terminology, they haven’t developed a well-formed outcome or a strategy with which to achieve it. With NLP, I can teach you how to do it.
6. You have a mental illness. This is the “medical model” favored by the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. You cannot obtain insurance payments or a prescription for your problem unless you’ve been diagnosed with a psychological disorder, as defined by the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. The drawback: a diagnosis describes symptoms, but not the origin of the problem or how it should be treated.
7. You have faulty thinking. Your negative, irrational self-talk triggers anxiety and encourages your unwanted behavior. An NLP practitioner will help you restructure and modify your internal commentary so that you get a different result. Read Steve Andreas’ book: Transforming Negative Self-Talk – or schedule an NLP coaching session with me to correct your self-talk.
8. The explanation for your behavior can be traced to a traumatic or significantly emotional event(s), possibly in your childhood, or at a time when you felt fragile or emotionally vulnerable. Your behavior continues today because of unresolved emotional upheaval and resulting limiting beliefs (which may also be unconscious). With NLP I can show you how to resolve and release such emotional attachments to the past and replace limiting beliefs with empowering ones.
9. Your problem is the result of your social-cultural conditioning. A life coach or mental health counselor can help you identify the limiting influences of your culture and overcome them, so that you develop enhanced adaptability and equanimity.
10. You are unconsciously obeying a suggestion from an authority figure, given at a moment when you felt emotionally vulnerable. Your unconscious mind accepted the suggestion and interpreted it in a harmful way. With hypnotherapy, you can bring the suggestion to conscious awareness and replace it with a more helpful suggestion.
11. Your birth order predisposes you to your unwanted behaviors. See an Adlerian psychologist who will help you to compensate.
12. You have an energy imbalance. Consult an energy healer who specializes in energetic approaches such as Reiki, acupressure, acupuncture, or Emotional Freedom Technique.
13. Your problem is “identification”; an unconscious attempt to identify with a loved or revered person – one who may be deceased. Therapy will help you solidify your own identity and neutralize any excessive emotional attachment to another person.
14. Your personality type predisposes you to your problematic behavior. Find a personality-based psychotherapist who will help you become more self-aware of the liabilities of your personality type so that you can overcome them.
15. Your problem stems from events in a past life. Follow the work of psychiatrist Brian Weiss who has documented many cases where, under hypnosis, his clients attributed their emotional and behavior issues to past life experiences. He wrote Many Lives, Many Masters and Through Time into Healing. With regression hypnotherapy, you can release the influences of past life events.
16. Your problem stems from an unconscious positive intention. A misguided part of your mind is attempting to obtain something of value or avoid something that is painful. The behavior may have served a good purpose at one time. The unconscious mind has fixated on the behavior and continues to generate it, even though it has outlived its usefulness. This is the main theory behind Ego State Therapy or “parts” therapy. Many hypnotherapists have training in this type of therapy and can guide you through a process to reframe the meaning the problem and negotiate solutions with the unconscious parts of your mind.
17. Your problem is essential to your soul’s evolution and your spiritual growth. Robin Norwood addressed this issue in her book Why Me? Why This? Why Now? The solution is to develop spiritual practices, define your soul’s purpose, examine your values, and live with integrity and authenticity.
18. Your problem is due to your astrological sign and the positioning of the planets. Consult an astrologer for your best course of action.
19. You have an undetected food allergy. Get tested by an allergist who will advise you on how to change the type of foods you eat.
20. You have an undetected nutritional deficiency. Consult a nutritionist who will help you select nutritionally balanced foods, vitamins, and supplements.
To understand how causation is usually due to a chain of events, let’s suppose a person, Sally, is the middle child in her family. She enters the world with a genetic predisposition to obesity that causes her body to easily store fat, maintain a sluggish metabolism, and have low levels of dopamine in her brain. She encounters a traumatic event as a child. She overhears an uncle (an authority figure in her life) say “She’ll never fully recover from this.” Under the socio-cultural influences of her family, she does what others around her do with stressful emotions – she turns to food for comfort – especially sweets. In doing so, she forms an identification with older family members whom she loves dearly. She doesn’t even realize that her addiction for food is based on an unconscious attempt to work through unresolved trauma
By the time Sally is an adult, she has formed a continual habit of eating sweets, even acquiring a nutritional deficiency. As she gains weight, she becomes depressed and eats more. She visits a psychiatrist who gives her a diagnosis and a prescription – an antidepressant – with weight gain as a side effect. Soon she comes to believe that maintaining a healthy weight is impossible, and that some part of herself makes her overeat, even when she doesn’t want to. She focuses on her problems, and wonders, “Why do I do this?” What reason would you give her?
If a client works with me, and asks, “Why do I do this? Why can’t I just stop?” I’m willing to explore some of the explanations above to determine what paradigm my client prefers. However, I make it clear that we are working with solutions, not analyses. With a combination of counseling and coaching, based in solution-oriented approaches such as NLP and hypnotherapy, I can help clients adjust their thinking, develop improved coping skills, replace limiting beliefs, neutralize trauma, develop workable plans and strategies, and understand more about their unconscious drives.
Simply put, if you tell me what kind of explanation you are looking for, I can tell you whether or not I can help you arrive at a solution that fits the explanation. Nevertheless, we could start off by asking a better question in the first place.
The Better Question
There is a better question than “Why do I do this?” and “Why can’t I stop doing this?”
Organizational consultant, John G. Miller, teaches people to take responsibility for their performance and hold themselves accountable for personal success, as well as the success of the organizations they work for. He wrote QBQ! The Question Behind the Question. His book states that when we feel frustrated, or when things go wrong, we tend to perpetuate problems by asking “lousy questions,” such as “Why does this happen?” or “When is someone going to fix this?” or “Who dropped the ball?” These questions lead to “victim thinking” as well as blaming and procrastination. They do not offer a solution to the problem at hand.
Better questions lead to better results and better thinking. Better questions begin with “What” or “How”. Better questions contain an “I” and focus on constructive action. Examples are “What can I do?” and “How can I contribute?” and “How can I adapt?” Better questions point thinking in the direction of change and motivate us to take ownership of our response. They help us to focus on action instead of explanations.
If you want mastery over your decisions and actions, if you want to break the grip of an unhealthy habit, decide for yourself what questions will best lead to the solution you seek. Remember: the answer you get depends on the question you ask.
The blog postings on this web site are intended for educational purposes only and are not to be construed as any form of treatment or advice/recommendations that would replace proper medical and/or mental health care.
Any references to clients, past or present are to be regarded as examples that do not identify any specific person. The details of such examples have been altered in such as way as to protect privacy. Some cases are based on a composite, rather than the experiences of any one individual.
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